Migrant Worker Calls For Reform

Former migrant labourer Alona Tirzite recalls the pain and degradation of her time in England’s strawberry fields and sighs. The 26-year-old from Latvia has been inspired to help migrant workers facing similar problems as part of a project run by a Lincolnshire council.

She said the situation has improved in the past few years, but work still needs to be done to help the foreign workers integrate into the community.

The project, run by South Holland District Council and funded by the East Midlands Development Agency, has found that more needs to be done to help migrant workers learn English and understand their employment rights.
She said workers are still frightened to come forward to report poor treatment from employers, as they are afraid of losing their jobs.

The project worker, who has a degree in economics and law, said conditions for her were barely tolerable when she first moved to England.

In her case, she arrived on a strawberry farm in the south of England with dreams of a better life.

“It wasn’t at all what I’d expected. We lived six to eight people in one caravan, with not much space – about half a metre at the end of the bed.

“People would walk through our room to get to the shower, so my friend and I had to push the wardrobe up to the bed to get some privacy,” she said.

She recalls working 17-hour days – starting at about 0430 and finishing as late as 2100 in the summer.

“If it was really hot, we would have a couple of hours break but mostly we had two 15 minute ones.

“It was piece work, we were paid for each tray we filled but they had to be really full.
“I had to work very hard … I was the second best picker and only got the minimum wage, which was around £3.73 an hour back then. So, obviously older, or less able workers wouldn’t get close to that.”

David de Verny, ecumenical chaplain with New Arrival Communities in Southeast Lincolnshire, said it appears to him that exploitation of migrant workers is increasing in the Boston area.

“The lucky ones have a contract, have bank accounts. They know they will have job for six months and don’t have to live in houses of multiple occupation and are starting to buy houses.

“But for the unlucky ones, I think the situation is getting worse.

“Some even have to hotbed – this is where one worker gets up for a shift and the bed is then occupied by a co-worker who has finished a shift.

“Without benefits and secure work, some find themselves homeless and destitute and in the worst cases, we have had to raise money to send them back to their home country.”

Ms Tirzite, who has now bought her own home in the Spalding area, said one of the most demeaning parts of her experience was having to answer to a number.

“I was known by a number and not my name, as we all were.

“We had to put a sticker with our number on all the trays we packed and that is what the supervisors would call us … I was known as 137.

“We weren’t allowed to talk to each other either. Eating was also a problem, there was no refrigerator and we only had one or two toilets for 100 workers.”

After five months, Ms Tirzite went on to pick potatoes at a nearby farm before moving on to pack flowers in the Spalding area.

She learnt English at evening classes and is now finishing a two-year project with South Holland District Council examining conditions for migrant workers in the area.

“I’m obviously happy to be in the position that I’m in now compared to my previous jobs. I now want to help workers get information on employment, workers’ rights and the NHS.

“I think the situation with migrant workers has improved. People are generally working in good conditions and they’re happy as they’re earning more than they would in their home country but there are still lots of issues, especially with gangmasters.

“The GLA (Gangmaster Licensing Authority) has been set up and hopefully we’ll see further improvements but the problem is that people are scared to complain because they could lose their jobs.”

Maggie Peberdy, manager of Boston’s Citizens Advice Bureau, said: “It is an incredibly complex situation. It has all kinds of different ramifications in areas like employment and housing.

“For the first two years there was a great problem … I think the situation has definitely improved. Some people are coming here determined to improve their way of living.

“A lot of gangmasters are now complying with legislation – they are fed up of being badgered.”